Thinking about social objects

You’ll see one day when you move out it just sort of happens one day and it’s gone. You feel like you can never get it back. It’s like you feel homesick for a place that doesn’t even exist. Maybe it’s like this rite of passage, you know. You won’t ever have this feeling again until you create a new idea of home for yourself, you know, for your kids, for the family you start, it’s like a cycle or something. I don’t know, but I miss the idea of it, you know. Maybe that’s all family really is. A group of people that miss the same imaginary place.

Andrew Largeman, a character in Garden State, a film that was written and directed by Zach Braff some years ago.

A group of people that miss the same imaginary place. That phrase really stuck in my head when I saw the movie, and it’s stayed there ever since. Go see the film if you haven’t already, you won’t regret it. [And you don’t have to take my word for it either. An IMDB rating of 7.9, spread out over 90,000+ votes, nearly a thousand reviews, that’s some going.]

It wasn’t long after that when Jyri Engestrom started riffing with the idea of social objects, and when Hugh MacLeod picked it up and spoke to me at length about the concept, part of me was still completely stuck in the Andrew Largeman mindset. The same imaginary place.

And that’s part of the reason I share some of the things I do via twitter: The music I listen to. The food I’m cooking or eating. The films I’m watching; the books I’m reading; the places I go to. Sometimes what I share is in the immediate past, sometimes it’s in the present, sometimes all I’m doing is declaring my intent. Because, paraphrasing John Lennon, life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.

When we share our experiences of sights and sounds and smells, we recreate the familiar imaginary places we share with others. We use these digital objects as the seed, as one dimension of the experience to flesh out the rest of that experience. So we take the sound or image or location or even in some cases the smell, and we extrapolate it into a rich memory of that particular experience. Which is often a worthwhile thing to do, for all the people who shared that “imaginary place” with you.

This has become more valuable as a result of phenomena like Facebook or LinkedIn or Twitter, that have made it easier for you to share the digital objects with the people you shared the original experience with. Which is why any tool that helps you capture what you’re watching or reading or listening to or visiting or eating is worth experimenting with.

This is something I’ve been doing for some time now, playing with every tool that comes on to the market, trying to see what it gives me that others didn’t. [When I started doing this, I had to come to terms quite quickly with the fact that some people don’t like being on the receiving end of all this “sharing”. More than once, I thought long and hard about segmenting my stream so that people could tune in or tune out of the particular segment. But I’ve stayed “whole” nevertheless. More on this later].

I’ve written about social objects a few times, even touched on the topic of something analogous to a graphic equaliser for an individual lifestream, yet I felt it was worth while in discussing them further in the context of “a group of people that miss the same imaginary place”. This time around, I want to concentrate on the ecosystem, on the tools and conventions we will need. Because that’s how sharing of experiences can become simpler, more extensive, more valuable.

I think we do five things with digital objects:

  • Introduce the object into shared space
  • Experience (and re-experience) the object
  • Share what you’re experiencing with others
  • Place in context that experience
  • Connect and re-connect with the family that has the same shared imaginary place

So to my way of thinking, once I start going down this road, every music site, every photo site, every video site, every audio site, they’re all about helping us introduce digital objects into shared space.

Many of these introducer sites also double up as experiencer sites: so you can watch the videos, hear the music and so on.

Every community site then becomes a way of sharing the experience of those objects: every review, every rating, every post, every link, every lifestream, all these are just ways of sharing our experiences, sometimes with commentary, sometimes without.

As more people get connected, and as the tools for sharing get better, and as the costs of sharing drop, we’re going to have the classic problems that we’ve already learnt about from the web in general. There are too many firehoses. It becomes hard to know what is out there, harder to find the right things. Errors, inaccuracies, even lies abound. (Digital objects are easy to modify).

So metadata becomes important. Preferably automated, so that authenticity is verifiable. Preferably low-cost and high-speed. Preferably indelibly associated with the digital object. Preferably easy to augment with tags and folksonomies and hashtags. Times, places, people. Names and descriptions. Devices involved, settings for those devices. History of views, listens, access, usage, editing. The edits themselves.

Authenticity becomes even more important. Watermarking the object while at the same time allowing copies of the object to be modified.

Search tools have to get better. I’ve been reading and re-reading Esther Dyson’s The Future of Internet Search for some time now, linking what she’s saying to what I’m thinking about here. Esther has been a friend and mentor for a long time; when she has something to say, I shut up and listen.

Visualisation tools also have to get better, which is why I spend time reading stuff like Information is Beautiful, why I visit feltron or manyeyes.

Sometimes many of these things happen in one place, elegantly and beautifully. That’s why I like Chris Wild’s Retroscope, why I like How To Be A Retronaut. It helps us place into context some of the things we share, some of the things we used to share.

Sometimes the tools for doing some of this move us into new dimensions, as in the case of layar and augmented reality, or for that matter AR spectacles. Noninvasive ways of overlaying information on to physical objects, ways that allow us to share the imaginary place more effectively.

As a young man, I was an incurable optimist. While time has tempered that optimism, my outlook on life continues to be positive, so positive that people sometimes claim I’m almost Utopian. Yet I still remember two quotations that were like kryptonite to the Superman of my optimism.

The first was Thoreau’s: Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them. And the second was Burke’s: “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing“.

There are many things we have to get better at, and many people working hard to make sure that, collectively, we get better at them. Feeding the world, eradicating poverty and the illnesses associated with poverty. Making sure every child has access to basic education. Improving healthcare, moving from cure to prevention, moving from symptom to root cause. Being better neighbours. Being better stewards of our environment.

I have never found it easy to accept that so many people are fundamentally lonely; I have never found it easy to accept that so many people are fundamentally depressed. And I have always wanted to do whatever I can to prevent these things from happening.

The tools we have today can help us eradicate loneliness and depression in ways that pharmacology can only dream of. Those tools can and will get better.

Of course there are things that come in the way, things we have to deal with first. Concepts like intellectual property rights have to be overhauled from the abominations they represent today, rebuilt from the ground up. Concepts like privacy and confidentiality have to be reformed to help us bring back community values that were eroded over the last 150 years or so. Human rights have to be reframed in a global context, the very concept of a nation re-interpreted, a whole new United Nations formed.

But while all that happens, we can help. By continuing to create ways that people remember the familiar shared imaginary places, by reminding ourselves what family means.

Family is not about blood alone, it is about covenant relationships. When something goes wrong in a covenant relationship, you don’t look for someone to blame, or even sue. You look for ways to fix it. Together.

Families don’t just share a past, they share a present. And a future. Social objects are, similarly, not just about the past, they’re about the present, they’re about the future.

We’re on the start of a whole new journey, and so we spend time learning about sharing by declaring past and present experiences. Soon we will get better at sharing intentions.

Soon we will get better at sharing imaginary places that are in the future, not in the past or present.

Soon. to paraphrase the prophet Joel,  our old men shall dream dreams, our young men shall see visions.

14 thoughts on “Thinking about social objects”

  1. It will happen all the sooner as more people grasp the concept of the internet…
    ..and as the infrastructure is geared up to cope with it more will get online and will share digitally in the way you do so well.
    The future is coming. Its just not here yet. Just wait until we get fibre to the home. Things will really rock then.

  2. JP,

    You are recognising something that – as I am sure you know – has been recognised before: for example, by Vico 400 years ago, as suggested by my friend John Shotter in response to Matthew Taylor’s concerns ( about “polarised and seemingly intractable public debates”:

    “Well, of course (says John), the whole thing is set up in terms of argumentation, right and wrong, in terms of principles… there are no ‘moments of common reference’ … there is a real need for concrete, paradigm vignettes that touch everyone in a similar manner… Vico called them ‘sensory topics’, events in which people can have a shared basis in shared feelings, thus to attribute a shared significance to an already shared circumstance…without such shared ‘sensory topics’ (topoi = ‘common places’), people simply talk past each other.”

    These ‘shared sensory topics’ are, I believe, the key to the kind of real human understanding that will allow us to ‘go on together’ from here (and to avoid the loneliness and depression you speak of). I think you are instinctively providing glimpses of some of these, and the warmth behind your efforts touches me…

    But I think that much more than better metadata is required…there are affordances of invitation, of convening, of intra-personal conduct, of entanglement (Karen Barad) that we need to discover, explore, and experiment with, that are still unfamiliar and beyond the capability of technology alone to deliver…these understandings and skills are foundational for the new public discourse that beckons so tantalisingly now.

    I look forward to talking more about all of this with you sometime soon,

    Best wishes, Theodore

  3. As you point out, social media allow people to relate to groups of people who live beyond the borders of location in the very same way that print once allowed information to be free from the constraints of location.

    Social media thus redefine what local interaction is and remove the constraints we earlier had on community building.

    A new form of communication in the digital, networked world combines broadcasting and point-to-point modes in a new way. The means of broadcasting are today available for individual people. They are not only the property of institutions. The audience for this new form of private broadcasting is not a passive mass, but the emerging communities that the individual wants to reach and connect with.

  4. Social objects create social velcro; they provide rich loops for others to hook meaning into. The creation and sharing of social objects fosters relevance, a quality that becomes ever more valuable in our hypernetworked world of multiple, subjective realities. Relevance is what takes us from buzz (stimulation) to bustle (action).

  5. “It’s like you feel homesick for a place that doesn’t even exist.”

    There’s a Welsh word that describes this feeling exactly: ‘hiraedd’ (pronounced ‘hirrayeth’). Often clumsily translated as ‘homesickness’, it’s more like “a grieving and a longing for that which is not, which has never been, and will probably never be”. A useful word, and a pain fully accurate one…

  6. Another great post, JP. From following your “flow”, I think you and I are often in the same imaginary place and this is partly because we were born in the same year.

    Thanks also to Tom for sharing the Welsh word “hiraedd” which perfectly contains a poignant feeling I’ve experienced on a regular basis.

  7. “Family is not about blood alone, it is about covenant relationships. When something goes wrong in a covenant relationship, you don’t look for someone to blame, or even sue. You look for ways to fix it. Together.”

    I really wish people would talk about ‘covenant’ more. Thank you.

  8. An interesting idea for discussion. But is this the isolation of the new world? When one looks at the huge increase in popularity of Facebook or Twitter, you have to ask what were these people were doing before? This is an extension of the attraction created by reality shows where you can say or do anything (and get away with it) and computer games. And the amount of time people spend interacting on these sites etc has also grown enormously to the extent it starts to encroach on other things such as work. Is there a blurring of ‘reality’ in these ‘familiar shared imaginary places’?

    It is all good for tech start-ups but it is creating a mass movement which many will find more & more difficult to differentiate between reality and unreality. The real-time nature would make it difficult to check facts etc if that really matters. In an economic sense do these sites etc create real value? It is difficult to get Asian companies to invest in something that doesn’t have a track record of profit. Some tech start-ups have huge value created by various interested parties but have little if any real world profits (remember the bubble of the late 90s?). Organisations with real profits have no chance of even coming close to a valuation multiple of a savvy tech start-up. Consequently these companies are exposed to buy-outs from cashed up organisations, an increasing portion of these being Asian. Even at a premium on market prices, many ‘old economy’ companies present bargains, including those controlling resources.

    The question is: are these social sites blowing up the next bubble?

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